In a recent finding by Papua New Guinea’s Chief Justice, Sir Salamo Injia, the Manus Island detention centre was declared to be formally closed. The finding was compelled by a previous PNG Supreme Court decision that found the detention centre to be illegal because it breached PNG’s constitutional rights. These two legal moves would, ordinarily, give those of us watching the travesty of justice that has been unfolding in Australia’s offshore detention centres grounds for hope. The situation, however, is far from sanguine.
The latest finding, indeed, exemplifies the arcane operations of law to fabricate legal fictions that have no grounding in reality, despite deploying the literal application of the rule of law: PNG’s Chief Justice declared Manus detention closed ‘despite the fact that roughly 860 men remain in it’ (ABC News 13/03/17, our emphasis). In juridically declaring the detention centre closed, nothing has changed for the refugees and asylum seekers detained there except for a nomenclatural change: they have been told that they no longer inhabit a detention centre, even as they have not been moved from their existing compounds; rather, the detention centre, in name only, has now reverted back to its original military purpose: a naval base. A certain brutal and circular logic here fulfils itself: a naval base becomes a detention centre that, in turn, reverts back to a military facility.
In the context of this militarised logic that violates all international norms and conventions on the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees there remains one constant: Australia’s abrogation of its responsibilities and its sanctioning, by design, of institutionalised practices of abuse and torture against its asylum seekers and refugees, precisely in order to instrumentalise them into international signs of deterrence.
Through what can only be called the exercise of legal fiat, a detention centre ceases, in name only, to exist, even as all the material infrastructure of the detention centre is left intact and in place: ‘The Australian Department of Immigration and Border Protection,’ despite the Chief Justice’s finding, ‘still lists the centre as being operational and housing 861 men.’ Broadspectrum, the camp operator, continues its routines of abuse — turning them up a notch. As we began to write this commentary, we heard reports that inmates of the camp are being subjected to the punitive restriction of access to food; in the words of Behrouz Boochani, a wall or fence has been constructed so that the men are served their meals ‘from small holes in the wall, just like for criminals’. An Amnesty spokesperson warns that such a restriction of adequate food could ‘amount to a violation on the prohibition against torture’.
Through the PNG court’s legal fiat, the systemic abuse and torture, and the suspension of rights in the compounds of Mike, Oscar, Foxtrot and Delta are only intensified where they do not continue as business as usual. In other words, the detainees have, through this legal sleight-of-hand, been moved to nowhere. Here we are here in the realm of ‘alternative facts’ and ‘fake news’: the ‘alternative fact’ to the existing fact that the men are still held captive in a detention centre is instantiated here through a juridical finding that has only come to pass in order to address a breach in PNG law. This juridical address, however, stands in stark contradistinction to the PNG’s Supreme Court previous finding that Manus detention centre was, unequivocally, illegal and thus breached PNG’s constitutional law.
Two forms of law are materialised by this case: the rule of law that is disjunctive to justice, and the rule of law that is driven to deliver justice, precisely because it acknowledges the breaching of constitutional rights. Standing in the shameful shadows of these two PNG legal findings is the abject spectre of Australian law that, virtually at every turn and despite the most admirable of attempts by a cohort of tireless refugee lawyers, has failed to offer either protection or justice to its refugee charges.
In the space between these two forms of law, the men of Manus detention centre fall through: to nowhere. In the locus of this nowhere, their lives are arrested. The refugees and asylum seekers of Manus continue to lead arrested lives: arrested on arrival by boat to Australia’s excised immigration zones and dispatched to offshore immigration prisons; arrested in the annihilating space of indefinite detention, where there is no time, and where everything is held in a state of suffocating and oppressive suspension; arrested into a state of paralysing immobility in which there is no glimpsing of a future; arrested in a space where they have been converted into commodities of exchange in a ‘deal’ with the Trump administration that has, thus far, delivered them no exit from their detention or suffering.
This essay is an immediate response to two recent events, the release of the findings into the death in custody of Ms Dhu in the week before Christmas 2016, and the death in custody of Manus Island refugee, Faysal Ishak Ahmed, on Christmas Eve. As in the case of other deaths in the custody of the state, these were not sudden and unforeseeable events, but the outcome of a range of violent practices—denial, delay, accusations of malingering, verbal and physical abuse, misdiagnosis, non-diagnosis, active neglect—by the state and its agents, including its healthcare practitioners. In these instances, a store of visual as well as other documentary evidence bears witness to the repertoires of gestural violence enacted on racialised bodies. Yet how does this evidence become visible in and to law?
Ms Dhu, 25 years old, was of the Yamatji Nanda family group on her mother’s side, and the Bunjima family group on her father’s side. Ms Dhu was taken into custody at South Headland Lock-Up on August 2, 2014 as a way of acquitting accumulated fines. She was dead two days later, on August 4.
130. Ten minutes after that (at 11.09 am) the CCTV camera in Cell 3 showed Ms Dhu lying down on the mattress on her back. She did not stand up again after this time and was only ever able to lift herself up twice to a seated position before she fell backwards striking her head on the concrete.84 There is no evidence that any police officer saw Ms Dhu fall on either occasion.
134. Sergeant Bond, Senior Constable Burgess and Senior Aboriginal Police Liaison Officer Edwards then walked over to Cell 3. Mr Bond then walked away in order to obtain gloves. The other two officers entered the Cell 3. As depicted on the Cell 3’s CCTV (that had no audio), at 12.11 pm Senior Constable Burgess approached Ms Dhu who was still lying on her back and with her right hand grabbed Ms Dhu’s right hand to pull her up into a sitting position. She then lost her grip of Ms Dhu who fell backwards, striking her head on the concrete floor.
135. After that, at 12.14 pm Mr Bond entered Cell 3. Ms Dhu was lifted by the police, this time to a supported seated position, and then the police returned her to a position lying on her back. All three police officers then left Cell 3.
Mulrunji Doomadjee, a 36 year-old old Palm Island man, was arrested for allegedly causing a public nuisance. Forty minutes later he was found dead in his cell.
200. Roy Bramwell was electronically interviewed by Detective Senior Sergeant Kitching and Detective Sergeant Robinson on 20 November 2004 at the police station at conclusion of which Robinson obtained a signed statement from Bramwell in which he gave a description of events in which Mulrunji was on the ground, with Hurley standing over him. Hurley’s elbow could be seen moving up and down in a punching action, while Hurley was saying “Do you want more Mr Doomadgee, do you want more?”
201. As stated, in the next interview with Hurley, conducted by Inspectors Webber and Williams at 11.53 am, Hurley described an action which he explained as being that which occurred in the course of “helping Mulrunji up”. This action involved his elbow moving up and down. Hurley’s account explains what Roy Bramwell purported to have seen and an innocent explanation was given for a damaging piece of evidence.
What does the law see? On a silent monitor, the impact of flesh and bone on concrete; the reflexive movement of recoil of a young woman’s broken frame as it is “grabbed,” then falls backwards. Is there a small twitch in the arm that grabs, then “loses grip”? No moans, cries or curses to be heard, but a slight turn of heads to the reverberation of skull on floor, a reverberation that seems to run through a current on the screen to a shudder in our own bodies?
“Do you want more Mr Doomadgee, do you want more?”:
A body is on the floor, another stands above it. A post-mortem examination of the sprawled figure on the floor will show that “he had a cut above his right eye, four broken ribs, his portal vein had been ruptured and his liver had been almost cleaved in two” (¶1). That much is not in question. But consider the up and down movement of an elbow, its point of impact obscured by a standard issue filing cabinet. Is the moving arm violently punching down or helpfully raising up?
What can the law see? Although in the 2010 inquest into the death of Mulrunji Doomadjee Coroner Brian Hine accepted Patrick Branwell’s testimony with regard to the punching movement of Chris Hurley’s arm, he discounted every other aspect of Branwell’s evidence, finding that even “taking that version at its highest … Such a description of blows may be consistent with the injuries to Mulrunji’s right eye and bruising to the jaw and scalp, but does not explain the fatal injuries”(¶128).1 Coroner Hine not only returned an open finding, but placed responsibility for his failure to “make a proper judgment” on the “two main witnesses of the incident, namely Bengaroo and Bramwell” (¶366). In the case of Ms Dhu, Coroner Rosalinda Fogliani concluded that she was “satisfied that the backwards fall that occurred when Senior Constable Burgess lost her grip on Ms Dhu’s hand did not contribute to Ms Dhu’s death”(¶529). As in the final inquest for Mulrunji, no prosecutions were recommended for the manner of Ms Dhu’s death in custody.
Virtual Accomplices: Visual Technologies of Police Violence
While there are numerous matters to be taken up in relation to each of these coronial findings, in these preliminary notes written shortly after the coronial findings into Ms Dhu’s death were released, we are concerned with what the law sees when it is presented with evidence of official violence against racialised bodies in custody. The records of racialised deaths in custody are an archive of such repertoires of gestural violence that remain outside the purview of the law. These repertoires of violence are becoming increasingly visible as they are recorded by screen technologies such as CCTV. Yet, as we have discussed elsewhere, so profoundly entrenched is the institutional racism that transpires within the police cells, corridors, vans and triage areas that Aboriginal or refugee victims traverse that the CCTV cameras become virtual accomplices in the crimes perpetrated against the victims of police violence (Perera and Pugliese 2016, Perera 2016).
Our writing of this commentary was interrupted by news of the death on Christmas Eve 2016 of Faysal Ishak Ahmed, aged 27, a refugee from Sudan held on Manus Island. As with the fatalities of Hamid Khazaei, a 24 year-old Kurdish Iranian refugee from Manus Island, and Omid Masoumali, a 22 year-old held on Nauru, Faysal’s death occurred after a lethal delay in airlifting him to Australia for urgent medical care. All these deaths in the custody of the state occurred not as sudden and unforeseeable events, but as the outcome of a range of violent practices—denial, delay, accusations of malingering, verbal and physical abuse, misdiagnosis, non-diagnosis, active neglect—by the state and its agents, including its healthcare practitioners. In all of these instances, a store of visual as well as other documentary evidence bears witness to the repertoires of gestural violence enacted on racialised bodies.
Yet how does this evidence become visible in and to law? The question becomes more and more urgent as screen evidence (such as that in the Black Lives Matter movement, from Australia’s Black Sites on Manus or Nauru, or from the video from the Don Dale Detention Centre) reveals the full repertoire of official violence, a violence that yet remains imperceptible to law. And it is here that we identify a paradox that is in fact no paradox: a historical repertoire of gestural violence is reproduced and captured by surveillance cameras that police officers and camp guards know is recording their actions as a form of visual testimony that might yet be used as admissible evidence in either a court or coronial inquiry; yet their actions are shadowed by this knowledge to no visible effect. The evidentiary apparatuses of the state are rather transmuted into passive witnesses that become, both during and after the fact, instrumentalities that enable, if not provoke, the ongoing reproduction, with impunity, of a lethal institutional repertoire of gestural violence.
What shadows this repertoire of gestural violence appears to be an embodied, internalized and historically validated knowledge in which the actions of the state’s agents, from medical staff to prison authorities, are proactively invested with impunity. It even appears that ever more flagrant repertoires of abuse and trauma are incited through recording devices, which, even as they are installed to supply the evidentiary grounds for any crime or misdemeanor, will systemically fail to result in any prosecution or serious level of accountability for their actions. A drawing by the award winning artist Eaten Fish, imprisoned on Manus Island, depicts staff at the IHMS run medical centre wilfully oblivious to the cries of patients in an area festooned with monitoring devices. It was at this centre that both Hamid Khazaei and Faysal Ishak Ahmed were subjected to the (non)treatment that would lead to their deaths.
Normalizing Racist Violence
523. Shortly before Senior Constable Burgess pulled her up and whilst she was lying on her back, Ms Dhu appeared vulnerable and fragile on the CCTV. She was moving her arms about and her demeanour is of someone who is vexed and trying to communicate something, without success. It ought not to have been followed by any attempt to lift her whatsoever. Senior Constable Burgess ought to have endeavoured to understand what Ms Dhu was trying to communicate. I have no doubt that Ms Dhu was trying to convey information that ought to have led to the immediate calling for an ambulance.
524. I accept counsel assisting’s submission that if in fact Senior Constable Burgess was genuinely contrite at what occurred and had been concerned that Ms Dhu had struck her head on the concrete floor then she would have apologised.
In the recently released footage of the police treatment of Ms Dhu in her final hours of custody before her untimely and unnecessary death, footage that graphically evidences the shocking repertoire of gestural violence, including dragging, flinging, shoving, gripping, and other forms of manhandling, we are compelled to witness the mobilisation of CCTV footage as a virtual accomplice in the punitive and gratuitous violence inflicted upon Ms Dhu’s body. As police officers enter her cell following Ms Dhu’s complaints about pains in her ribs, Senior Constable Burgess roughly yanks the prostate body of Ms Dhu by one arm and loses her grip, leading to Ms Dhu’s falling on her back and hitting her head on the concrete floor.
In this scene, Senior Constable Burgess treats Ms Dhu as though she were inert matter, or already dead. Burgess conveys no sense that Ms Dhu could have been injured by the reckless way in which she is handled. Framed as a mere body of colour, specifically, an Aboriginal body, Ms Dhu is placed beyond the purview of the sentient human who could suffer. What the viewer is compelled to bear witness to in this CCTV footage returns us to the framework of biological racism: the Aboriginal body as nonhuman, insentient, impervious to suffering or feeling. Yet the Coroner’s discussion of this incident hones in, not on the evidence of Senior Constable Burgess’s brutal treatment of Ms Dhu, but on whether she manifested “contrition” for the fall by saying sorry. Contrary to the visual evidence, the discussion implies that Ms Dhu’s fall was an unforeseeable consequence of Senior Constable Burgess’s actions rather than an entirely predictable outcome of the reckless and brutal handling of Ms Dhu’s as if she were an inert piece of matter.
The focus on contrition and apology, as if what were at stake here were a matter of social etiquette or mere breach of good manners, obfuscates the entire chain of prior actions and gestures leading up to the moment of Ms Dhu’s fall, a chain of events that situates the fall not as an accident followed by a passing incivility, but as the outcome of the racist assumptions upon which the entire treatment of Ms Dhu—as hysterical, addicted, diseased, malingering, and so on—was premised. The invocation of the codes of civility and good manners by Coroner Fogliani, as with the deployment throughout her findings of terminologies such as “unprofessional” and “inhumane,” instantiates a refusal or failure to recognize the gestural violence of racism, and consequent culpability for potentially criminal negligence and breach of responsibility and accountability. Instead, the register of social breach and lack of contrition is invoked—as if the mere utterance of the word “sorry” would invalidate the actions and assumptions that led to what must be described as a purposive, not incidental, manhandling of Ms Dhu’s weakened and ill body. “Inhumane,” as a euphemism for “racist,” also serves to invoke a different register, one of an attenuated human rights lexicon that carries with it a limited purchase of liability within the limits of the law.1
The CCTV footage of Ms Dhu’s footage was publicly released only after intensive lobbying by her family, who wanted the palpable violence it exposed to be made visible to all. The request was initially refused by the Coroner who cited protection of the family’s sensibilities as her rationale. Viewed in conjunction with the Coronial findings, the footage is devastating evidence of the normalization of racist violence within both the carceral and judicial systems, despite the presence of CCTV monitors. It demonstrates, we argue, the law’s inability to see racist violence and its lethal consequences. Instead, the Coroner’s findings identify “lapses” in “professional behavior” and failings in “duty of care”—in other words, minor and non-prosecutable misdemeanors in what is otherwise viewed as the standard operating procedure of police in their everyday treatment of Aboriginal prisoners in custody.
139. Ms Dhu was unable to get up. She had limited use of her head and hands, which can be seen moving on the CCTV. After being handcuffed by First Class Constable Matier as she remained lying on her back on the mattress, Ms Dhu was dragged along the floor and then carried by the two police officers to the waiting police vehicle in the sally port area.91
Ms Dhu cannot stand or even lift her head. She is, in fact, in a state of septic shock and is slowly dying. Despite this, she is handcuffed. Unable to stand or walk, she is dragged along the floor of the police station by two police officers. The CCTV footage here enacts the total subjection of the black body in the hands of state authorities. It, not she, is what can be dropped, handcuffed even when hardly conscious, then dragged as if nothing more than a bag of rubbish across the floor. Always already criminal, always already beyond the purview of both law and human rights, the Indigenous body is what can be violated across the multiple spaces of the carceral complex because that is what is its due; because the infliction of gestural violence on the body affirms at once its congenital criminality (in this case, a failure to pay fines), its inveterate capacity to lie (the assumption by both medical and custodial staff that Ms Dhu is faking her pathological symptoms), and its stubborn resistance and defiance (repeated calls for help) of the state’s ongoing regime of subjection.
Who killed Ms Dhu?
142. The CCTV cameras outside and inside the emergency department’s reception area of HHC recorded Ms Dhu’s cardiac arrest. The police vehicle arrived and was parked outside the emergency department doorway shortly after 12.40 pm. Senior Constable Burgess walked off and returned about one minute later with a wheelchair.
143. Ms Dhu was clearly completely incapacitated as the police officers lifted her out of the back of the police vehicle. She appeared to be unconscious. The two police officers placed her into the wheelchair. There was no urgency shown by either police officer, notwithstanding Ms Dhu’s evident state of collapse.
169. The police officers adjusted Ms Dhu’s body into the wheelchair. Alarmingly, they left her with her head hanging backwards over the top of the wheelchair, facing upwards and with her neck hyperextended. She had no independent movement in her neck. From the CCTV images, Ms Dhu does not display any signs of life at this point. The police officers did not display any sense of urgency in their conveyance of Ms Dhu into the emergency department of HHC.108
The CCTV cameras are present recording Ms Dhu’s final moments: they record her cardiac arrest. Her process of dying is recorded for posterity. Her heart finally gives way to the cascade of pathological symptoms that have been slowly but inexorably building up untreated. With the CCTV cameras still rolling, the hospital’s emergency department reception area becomes another stage for the reproduction of the established repertoire of racist violence. Ms Dhu is unconscious and dying. Is it because of this that the police officers “showed no urgency” in their actions? They leave Ms Dhu in the wheelchair with her “head hanging backwards over the top of the wheelchair, facing upwards and with her neck hyperextended.” Ms Dhu is thus left in a position which in fact leaves her prone to asphyxiation: “From the CCTV images, Ms Dhu does not display any signs of life at this moment.” This is more than a lapse in “duty of care”: surely, the actions of the police officers here must be seen as tantamount to negligent manslaughter?
Screening Law: Terror and Spectacle
160. At the inquest a concern was raised about some apparently dark brown coloured matter left on the Lock-Up’s corridor floor on 4 August 2014, after Ms Dhu was carried along it, on the way to the police vehicle. Specifically, this was when First Class Constable Matier and Senior Constable Burgess commenced carrying Ms Dhu to the sally port. At one point she was lowered onto or close to the floor. Though there was no dark brown coloured matter on the floor before Ms Dhu was placed there, it was evident once she was removed from that spot.
161.The question then arose concerning the nature of that material, and whether it could have been from an involuntary bowel movement from Ms Dhu. The dark brown coloured matter also appeared to have later been removed, and the question then arose as to whether the area had been cleaned before forensic investigators arrived. [our emphasis]
167. I am satisfied that the dark brown coloured material under Ms Dhu’s trousers on the floor of the corridor that she was being carried along was not faecal matter. It was either a magazine or a paper bag. It has a dark brown appearance on the CCTV. It is still visible on the CCTV on the floor of the corridor at 1.10 pm on 4 August 2014.107No CCTV vision is available after that point.
In his critical analysis of the intersection of law with visual technologies, Richard Sherwin notes that “when law migrates to the screen it lives there as other images do” entering “a condition of ontological and ethical uneasiness threatens the legality of law’s claim to power” (Sherwin 2102). For Sherwin this is an argument for the importance of visual literacy for legal practitioners. Our interest here is in how access to the images on which the law bases its judgments enable us to ask in turn how the law sees, and to identify the visual blockages and blind spots in its line of vision that challenge its claim to mystical authority and that expose its institutionalised repertoires of racist violence. On the question of the appearance of a dark brown stain under Ms Dhu while she was being roughly hauled by police officers, and on the critical issue of whether forensic evidence might have been prematurely cleaned up, for instance, the Coroner is content to pronounce herself “satisfied” that the matter in question was “either a magazine or a paper bag.”
Our analysis of the CCTV footage of Ms Dhu’s time in police custody and her eventual death has worked to identify what we have termed a “repertoire of gestural violence” that underpins, enables and normalizes institutionalised racism. The migration of these repertoires of racist gestural violence to the screen exposes complex economies of law, visual spectacle and regimes of impunity. The conditions of ontological and ethical uneasiness that are produced by these visual recordings emerge from their evidencing of the convergence of police violence and terror with spectacle. We say “spectacle” as these CCTV recordings’ purported status as legal evidence is consistently undermined by the law’s failure to perceive forms of gestural violence that would lead to a recommendation to the DPP of grounds for prosecution of any individuals captured in flagrante delicto (acts of blazing offence). We say “spectacle” as what the corpus of CCTV recordings serves to evidence is a type of object lesson to the settler-colonial state’s racialised subject: You are the property of state; you are a priori suspect and criminal; you are beyond the purview of legal redress; you can be tortured and let die with impunity; indeed, it is legally permissible to do so, that is why your trauma and death can be recorded. It is the law.
Yet, in the face of this necropolitical spectacle, something else also becomes manifest: the very “legality of law’s claim to power.” As the images available to the law migrate to the screen, able to be juxtaposed alongside other images, as well as viewed against historical knowledges and experiences of repertoires of racist violence, the law demonstrates its own inability to see. What sort of law can assert its claim to justice when its repeated failures to see ensure the serial production of Aboriginal deaths in custody with impunity? We repeat: What sort of law can assert its claim to justice when its repeated failures to see ensure the serial production of asylum seeker and refugee deaths in custody with impunity? In our repetition is evidenced the law’s sanctioning, by default, of the serial racial deaths at the hands of the state’s penal apparatuses. In our repetition is evidenced the failure of law to do justice.
1. In its statement on the Ms Dhu Inquest, the Human Rights Commission states: “We note the Government’s recent consideration of ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT) which provides for monitoring mechanisms aimed at raising the standards of treatment for anyone deprived of their liberty. We all have much to gain from the implementation of such instruments and the laws that give effect to them.” The Optional Protocol, which potentially offers protection to subjects in custody, then, has not been ratified by the Australian government.
2. In its statement on the Ms Dhu Inquest, the Human Rights Commission states: “We note the Government’s recent consideration of ratification of the Optional Protocol to the Convention Against Torture and other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (OPCAT) which provides for monitoring mechanisms aimed at raising the standards of treatment for anyone deprived of their liberty. We all have much to gain from the implementation of such instruments and the laws that give effect to them.” The Optional Protocol, which potentially offers protection to subjects in custody, then, has not been ratified by the Australian government.
We express our heartfelt sadness for, and solidarity with, the families and loved ones of Ms Dhu, Mulrunji Doomadjee, Faysal Ishak Ahmed, Omid Masoumali and so many, many others who have died in state custody. researchersagainstpacificblacksites.org Dec 30, 2016
Perera, Suvendrini. “See you in the funny pages: Penal Sites, Teletechnics, Counter-Artifactualities,” Keynote address, Somatechnics Conference, December 2016.
RAPBS congratulates Eaten Fish on his international award for Courage in Editorial Cartooning.
From the citation by Cartoonists Rights Network International:
The importance of the work of human rights defenders, artists, cartoonists and writers, such as Eaten Fish, within the prison camp cannot be overstated. Nor can the fact that they are at further risk of violence each time they create, speak, draw or write. Eaten Fish is one of those who’s work as a cartoonist brings to light the horrors that are happening around him. CRNI believes that his body of work will be recognized as some of the most important in documenting and communicating the human rights abuses and excruciating agony of daily life in this notorious and illegal prison camp. His work pushes through the veil of secrecy and silence and layers of fences in a way that only a talented artist speaking from the inside can.
Whatever else remains uncertain following the 2016 election, Labor and Liberal parties have avowed their unwavering commitment to the policy of offshore incarceration, thereby condemning close to a thousand men held in PNG, and several hundred people including children, women and men held on Nauru, to what is, in effect, a life sentence. The fact that the gates of the Australian-funded camps are technically open does not detract from the fact that these refugees and asylum seekers remain unfree and subject to all manner of dangers. They are, in their own words, ‘political prisoners’ of the Australian state, for the term of their unnatural lives. Both Government and Opposition declare, with a certain relish, that their policies may be ‘harsh’ and ‘tough,’ but are undertaken in a spirit of humanity, in the name of ‘saving — some other and unspecified — lives’, somewhere else, in some unknown future. This is the much-vaunted rationale of ‘deterrence’. Just what is entailed in these ‘harsh’ to be ‘humane’ policies remains largely out of sight. Politicians have become especially dextrous at fixing their gaze on the hazy horizon of deterrence to avoid focusing on the crimes being committed in its name under their very eyes.
This is the world that the courageous young artist Eaten Fish places before us. His artworks are wordless messages from a submerged world of fear and violence. They bring before our eyes, in unprecedented detail, that which is being kept secret and hidden from our sight.
Mr Fish says: Tell them I have got serious problem. Tell them Mr Fish locked himself away because no-one understands him. Tell them Mr Fish doesn’t want to fight. Tell them Mr Fish is not sick, these people made him sick. Tell them Mr Fish does not want to be assaulted. Tell them I just want the normal life. I want my right to be a healthy person. – statement by Mr Eaten Fish to RAPBS
Eaten Fish’s greatly talented, highly innovative and inventive drawings from Manus Island have been published in academic journals and exhibited in galleries in Australia. His character even makes an appearance in the work of acclaimed cartoonist First Dog on the Moon. Now RAPBS has been authorized to reveal, for the first time, that Eaten Fish is the nom de plume of Ali, a 24-year-old Iranian artist who has been held on Manus Island for three years. Expert medical opinion is that Eaten Fish is the subject of trauma that caused him to seek refuge. His condition has been exacerbated by the lack of adequate care on Manus Island, and even more disturbingly, he has become the target of further violence, including sexual assault, during his detention. All previous attempts to seek help for him have failed, despite medical practitioners familiar with the case stating that he requires immediate assistance for Complex PTSD (Post Traumatic Stress Disorder), severe OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder), Dissociation with panic attacks and somatization.
RAPBS is today launching a campaign for urgent attention to be paid to the case of Eaten Fish and for his protection from further harm and danger. RAPBS calls for his evacuation from Manus Island and the provision of specialized care for the serious conditions from which he suffers.
A LANDSCAPE OF MENACE
Eaten Fish’s series of drawings, meticulously inked on pages torn from a notepad, document the myriad ways in which the inmates of Manus Island are rendered targets, driven to the edges of endurance in hellish surroundings. In their minute renderings of a teeming, nightmare world, charged with sexual menace, the drawings evoke the infernal paintings of Hieronymus Bosh. Under a scorching sky, graves marked with the names of Reza, Hamid and Omid, the three fatalities of our Pacific black sites, figure in almost all the works, grim reminders in an environment where even the sun seems to have turned against the inmates.
In a drawing of the health centre, medical staff are shown revelling and feasting while the injured and ill call desperately for help. A doorway leads directly to the graveyard, and a coffin lies on the floor. Inside a walled-in enclosure marked Mental Health, a hapless inmate can be glimpsed, to whom staff appear completely indifferent. Eaten Fish’s OCD leads to repeated washing and scrubbing of the body to the point where the skin is raw and bleeding. The condition has been exacerbated by his treatment on Manus. The response of health workers to these manifestations of extreme psychic distress is telling: two nurses reportedly told him he was possessed by demons and promised that they would pray for him. Other inmates responded with bullying and taunting designed to provoke his symptoms.
Among the most chilling are the drawings in which Eaten Fish brings to light the abuse of male prisoners that has been mostly ignored in the writings about the camps. Several drawings show prisoners being subjected to sexual violence in a series of collusions among guards, managers, health professionals and fellow-prisoners. Under the all-seeing eyes of CCTV, protectors and predators are indistinguishable. In ‘Manus Island Detention Centre Sexual Harassment’, two lurking figures behind the palm trees argue over a potential victim: ‘I love him so much, I know him very well. He’s going to accept to have sex with me’ one says; ‘Sorry buddy … he is mine’, the other counters. In the foreground, a third figure schemes, ‘I didn’t have sex for three years I’m sure he’ll help me … HE MUST LET ME TOUCH HIM’, while pretending a friendly interest in the artist’s drawings. The only objection is from a crab, a creature which often supports the character of Eaten Fish in the drawings and attests to the artist’s belief that it is only the small and lowly who truly see and know the world. In contrast, the god’s eye view of the presiding CCTV incites, ‘touch him sexually’, while the sun echoes, ‘Touch him, man’. The drawing is, literally, a cry a for help: a minutely drawn frame within the frame shows bound hands reaching over the fence, imploring ‘I need help, I need you’ to the indifferent scene outside.
In these works, Eaten Fish graphically draws attention to an insular world cordoned off from the rule of law and the applicability of any protective regime of rights. In the world of Manus detention prison, sexual assault, breaches of duty of care and trust, and the enslavement and commodification of inmates’ bodies are the norms that govern the camp. The cartoons materialise an amoral world in which predators pretend to be carers in order to ensnare their victims, violate them and exploit them – with the full knowledge that they can continue to do so with impunity. The recurring images of CCTV cameras that populate Eaten Fish’s drawings expose a brutal irony: the cameras are actually recording video evidence of criminal acts – to no effect. In this alegal and amoral landscape, surveillance technologies become just one more instrument of voyeurism and abuse: we see, in fact, the cameras egging on the perpetrators. This raises the troubling question: who is watching behind these cameras and to what effect?
The power and significance of Eaten Fish’s drawings are brought into sharp focus when they are juxtaposed against the (ineffective) CCTV cameras that monitor the inside and outside of the camp. A prisoner is compelled to use the device of the ‘cartoon’, a seemingly benign and unpretentious genre, as a means to bring to public attention the daily crimes that transpire in Manus camp — despite the fact that legally admissible evidence of these same crimes is available from the CCTV recordings. In spite of the ubiquitous CCTV cameras, we are reliant on the courageous cartoons of Eaten Fish to bring before our eyes that which is being kept secret and hidden from our sight.
A van marked Transfield, equipped with surveillance cameras signifying Australian oversight, is at the centre of another even more nightmarish drawing which hints at hidden depths of sexual terror in the camp. A headless chicken labelled DIAC pursues a detainee, crying ‘I only want Ali little fuck me and eat me’. A weeping figure laments: ‘weeks ago I saw a dream …a big fucking chicken escaped from kitchen… it was looking for me. It told me that it loves me. I eating chicken every day for food. I hate chicken’. A helicopter marked PNG army hovers above. Apart from the graves marked ‘Hamid’ and ‘Reza’, the figure is alone, behind a wire mesh, while the bright sunlight and postcard tropical scene outside mock his helpless desolation. The drawing evokes a cosmology of threat and terror in which Australian overseers, contractors, locals and even the surrounding landscape conspire to prey on, consume and collude against the victim.
A third drawing, The Gift, makes an elaborate circuit of Oscar compound, taking in sentry posts, medical centre and partly obscured scenes of abuse, as a figure, identified by boat number, seeks to make a phone call on Mother’s Day. This drawing maps the currencies of sex, food, phone cards, cigarettes and other such commodities that make up the underground economy calculated to prey on the weakest and most vulnerable in the camps. Guards and supervisors appear as giant, forbidding figures. The words, ‘no chance, no change’ are repeated again and again. The drawing once more ends with an unambiguous appeal, in large letters: Help Me.
‘The Gift’, dated 2014, strikingly parallels a recent article by Behrouz Boochani detailing the destructive underground economy of cigarettes and phone cards in the camps. In this astute analysis Boochani examines how, ‘in order to force refugees to live in PNG, the authorities make them reliant upon other prisoners’ by instituting a system of shopping points: ‘Shopping points, cigarettes and drugs, legal and illegal, all become a part of this larger plan: the deprived prisoners, those who cannot buy cigarettes and telephone cards, have sold their shoes, clothes, dictionaries, MP3s, and other useful possessions to the rest who still have cigarettes’. Boochani adds that ‘Sexual abuse incidents and slavery cases have also been heard of’ as a consequence of this system that creates divisions among the inmates while also having the effect of increasing the profits the camp operator, Broadspectrum, who gains through the sale of cigarettes:
A few meters away, at Foxtrot compound, a young man is collecting the cigarette butts spread over the mass of soil next to the dirty toilets of the prison, in order to roll them in paper and suck in the smoke. He is also addicted to marijuana and does not have any cigarettes to smoke. There are many like this vanquished and addicted man in the quadrangle of Manus prisons.
Like Boochani’s writings, Eaten Fish’s drawings are unsparing works that attempt to bring before our eyes the forms of abjection, criminality and violence that have been fostered through the organization of the camps. They show the damage we inflict by design, licensed in the name of care for humanity.
Eaten Fish’s non de plume alerts us to the fact that detainees are being consumed on multiple levels: as prey to sexual predators; as deterrence shields by the Australian government; and as forms of disposable life outside the purview of legal rights or redress. In this last sense the name also suggests that, like several other refugees, the artist sees his existence in indefinite detention as a form of death. In this, the name Eaten Fish is reminiscent of a story told by Mark Isaacs in The Undesirables about an inmate named Parshan who was progressively broken by the regime. On the wall above his bed Parshan communicated his despair, drawing a gravestone inscribed with his name, and writing the words, ‘seven months ago dead’ on it. Some weeks later Parshan is found lying in his tent curled up in sweat-stained and blood-soaked sheets, having slashed himself across the chest and wrists. His cry for help was answered too late.
The artworks of Eaten Fish tell of a life of incarceration on Manus Island that is not a life. His message to us is simple:
Tell them Mr Fish is not sick, these people made him sick. Tell them Mr Fish does not want to be assaulted. Tell them I just want the normal life. I want my right to be a healthy person.
Professor Suvendrini Perera (Curtin University) and Professor Joseph Pugliese (Macquarie University) are two of the founders of Researchers Against Pacific Black Sites. This article is published by RAPBS (http://researchersagainstpacificblacksites.org/). Please acknowledge this site when quoting from it.
In the Manus prison, a skinny man with a pale and petrified face is leaning against the wall of a completely empty room in SAA solitary confinement. Deep down, he feels utterly hopeless while biting his nails. This man who has been kept in the prison for nearly three years and has lost 30 kilograms of his weight was recently transferred into the solitary confinement at his own request. He could not endure the drowsiness of marijuana anymore and had desperately pleaded to the officers to provide him with marijuana. Until recently, this solitary confinement was called the Green Zone.
A few meters away, at Foxtrot compound, a young man is collecting the cigarette butts spread over the mass of soil next to the dirty toilets of the prison, in order to roll them in paper and suck in the smoke. He is also addicted to marijuana and does not have any cigarettes to smoke. There are many like this vanquished and addicted man in the quadrangle of Manus prisons. In other words, they are experiencing a life similar to persons sleeping in cardboard, people who have inadvertently become slaves to addiction and are unable to live without marijuana in the cruel and harsh atmosphere of the prison.
The life of these forgotten men in this place reflects a crisis of silence; and the dominance of this crisis over the prison develops everyday, threatening the lives of this group of people in an even more apparent way.
Everything, however, refers to the weekly shopping points. If a person receives a double positive decision, which means, at the first stage he is recognized a refugee and at the second stage the Papua New Guinea accepts his resettlement in the country, his weekly points are cut. These refugees who are, at the moment, 450 people are loath to leave the prison and resettle in this country. They do not want to risk their lives in PNG as all they have seen, experienced and been taught so far is that this country has a tribe-like atmosphere where kinship ties demand allegiances that exclude ‘others’ and where safety is at its lowest possible level.
This policy precludes people from buying cigarettes and telephone cards; and also causes them to experience blatant discrimination and additional pressure. The other point is, according to this policy this group of people has practically become dependent on the others. In order to force refugees to live in PNG, the authorities make them reliant upon other prisoners. This discriminatory policy has had serious repercussion for refugees who smoke cigarettes and marijuana as they make every endeavour to provide them with substances to smoke.
Apart from that, a cigarette in the prison effectively plays the role of money and makes it possible for people who do not smoke to receive many of their needs in return for cigarettes from the local officers who smuggle many goods into the prison. An obvious business is carried on by people who do not have anything other than some cigarettes in the small city of Lorengau – just twenty kilometers away from the prison. Those who have cigarettes buy different kinds of T-shirt, mp3, perfume, cups and many other small objects. This has formed economic class divisions over the course of time in this prison. Additionally, when a prisoner has bought everything he needs, he usually exchanges his cigarettes for little sums of money. Currently, many people have access to money at this hellhole; however, the amount of money is not much.
On the contrary, those who smoke cigarette and marijuana have nothing, no possessions. They are not even able to buy a telephone card to call their families. Since this policy was implemented last year, the deprived prisoners, those who cannot buy cigarettes and telephone cards, have sold their shoes, clothes, dictionaries, MP3s, and other useful possessions to the rest who still have cigarettes. Accordingly, they have become like people with nothing, like wanderers sleeping in cardboard.
There is a relevant question. Why are the rest of the prisoners not assisting and supporting the deprived ones? The answer is clear. Despite the fact that they had helped their fellow detainees on various occasions in buying cigarettes or telephone cards, it is within the bounds of possibility that sooner or later, the same destiny lies before them. By receiving the double positive decision, they will too will be deprived of the weekly points; hence, every single wise person in their shoes would save his cigarettes so as to be able to smoke or speak with his family; particularly those who are a father and need to always know how their family is doing.
Here in this prison I know some prisoners who have not spoken even once with their families for nearly a year. Similarly, I know a number of men selling their rooms and beds to have marijuana. Some addicts prefer to smoke marijuana even at the price of living in crowded rooms. Therefore, they sell their rooms to people seeking a quieter and cleaner place in return for cigarettes.
Sexual abuse incidents and slavery cases have also been heard of where people use the supplicants, in practice, as slaves to carry out their personal work such as washing their clothes, getting food for them, etc. This rampant corruption has even spilled over into the kitchen. By paying amcigarette to the kitchen staff, many have milk, nuts, juice and snacks in their rooms. On the contrary, many others have limited access to quality food, as they do not have any cigarettes to offer.
Another vital question to ask is why Broadspectrum (Transfield) turns a blind eye to the catastrophic consequences of this policy. The response is crystal clear: With this policy, Transfield kills two birds with one stone. On the one hand, the company exerts mounting pressure on the refugees to make them resettle in the island; and on the other hand, this policy yields an excess economic profit for the company since there is a close correlation between the economic profit and the number of people attending various classes and engaging in sports activities. To clarify, if a person participates more often in activities, he can buy more cigarettes. A kind of direct relationship has formed between cigarettes and the activities in the prison. This relationship has caused classes to be busier, and the dirty ground of the prison full of people who are forced to run for a few minutes everyday to receive points and eventually, cigarettes. As a result of an increase in numbers of people engaging in the activities, Transfield has recruited dozens of teachers and trainers these days that bring about ambusiness boom for this company. In fact, if the refugees decide to impose a sanction against all the activities one day, the first loser will be the Transfield company; the company which develops its business more than before through cutting the weekly points of 450 people. In this scenario, Transfield will be compelled to dismiss its employees, similar to what occurred during the big hunger strike in January last year, when the company sustained heavy financial losses.
Prison is a filthy and inhuman place. It can cause people to be on the verge of distrust and hatred of fellow beings. For those who have experienced prison, an accepted reality is that a prisoner needs to reduce their dependence on the others; otherwise, he will simply become a tool in the hands of jailers and anyone else. A dependent person becomes like a slave.
What should be emphasized is that what has happened in the Manus prison is the collapse of social relationships and moral values through bringing cigarettes in the form, not only a consuming object, but more importantly as a functional tool that plays the role of money. A prisoner has very basic needs, and sometimes, having a simple cup could be a manifestation of power. The operating system in the prison engenders distrust in social relationships among the prisoners that leads to humiliation, pessimism, anxiety and ethical collapse. In short, these days at the Manus prison, the cigarette is used “as an element of control and domination”. At the moment, the authorities fear a public protest, even a peaceful one, being mounted.
By cutting the weekly points of half of the population, the authorities have created division between the detainees. Whereby, unlike before, they have been split into various groups. The prisoners are also aware of the fact that they do not have the previous sense of unity and, more than ever, they have become too weak and too obedient to confront this system that has stripped them of all human dignity and whatever they had as a human. There is no doubt that the cause of this division, rift, and even hostility is the discrimination that dominates the small society of this prison.
Australian immigration is separating us because they know that we are getting used to each other.
Australian immigration is separating us because they know we are filling the gap between our family and loved ones with our friends in detention.
Australian immigration is separating us because they want to add salt to our wound.
These words written by Amir, a man held in Australia’s detention black site for refugees and asylum seekers on Manus Island, PNG, go to the heart of the new policies announced by PNG immigration authorities earlier this week.
The detainees have been told that the four compounds that make up the Manus Island camp will be split into two parts: those who received positive findings from PNG authorities will be housed in Oscar and Delta compounds and eventually permanently resettled in PNG, whereas those who receive negative findings are to be housed in Foxtrot and Mike compounds and eventually deported. The officials reiterated that none of the close to 900 men would ever be settled in Australia.
The announcement has spread deep unease and fear through the camp. As the writer Behrouz Boochani, imprisoned on Manus since 2013, puts it, “Only a prisoner can understand deeply how hard is the trauma when you must move to other prison.”
And the move surely will be to another prison both for those who receive “positive” findings for “settlement,” and for those who receive negative orders for removal. In an eloquent and powerful letter to PNG authorities, 76 refugees who have received “double positive” status make it very plain that they see the determination that they must be settled on PNG as amounting to nothing other than a new term of indefinite punishment:
Most of us received our refugee status more than a year ago and we are not willing to be resettled in your country, which is great NO to your country from us to continue living life here…
In our countries we were threatened of imprisonment, exile, torture and beatings, but in your country we were literally indefinitely imprisoned, exiled, tortured and were beaten up.
In your country two of our friends were killed, one from negligence and the other one was beaten to death by your people.
In your country we stood in lines for hours and hours to receive ‘food’, shower, toilet and malaria medication under the merciless sunlight.
In your country our humanity was taken away and we were humiliated but we sewed our lips and went on hunger strike with hundreds of our friends to plea for freedom but again you suppressed us because the only thing you could care was the money that Australia wound put in your pocket to dehumanise us.
By writing this letter we would clearly like to inform you that we are not willing to be your slaves and await for death in poverty, loneliness and disease in case to be a lesson for the refugees in rest of the world.
There are several likely motivations for PNG authorities’ decision to separate the men into two groups just now. It is widely believed that the forthcoming challenge to the legality of the Lombrum Detention Centre prompted this preemptive action by Australia and PNG in order to empty the camp of inmates in the event of a PNG High Court finding in favour of the challenge. Others suggest that bilateral agreements reportedly being sought with Iran will clear the way for mass removals of those who have received negative findings but who are unable to be refouled under current international arrangements.
A further likely motivation, in our view, is to curb the growing sense of political community among inmates. As analysts who have followed the writings and other forms of protest of the men imprisoned on Manus Island over several years, we have noted that their articulations of their plight have become increasingly astute, pointed and uncompromising, while the forms of political protest and action they have undertaken have become increasingly creative and assured. As the defiant declaration by the “double positives” demonstrates, the punitive conditions to which refugees and asylum seekers alike have been subjected have resulted in giving them an acute understanding of their plight and have forged a determination to reject out of hand the legal feints and political doublespeak of their jailers.
This developing sense political community is, undeniably, marred by its obverse, a disturbing undertow of bullying, harassment, and internal violence, especially sexual violence, that remains unchecked — and at times, it would appear, is actively fostered — by guards and managers. Yet, there is no denying the growth of a collective voice and solidarity on both Manus Island and Nauru, a growth that in turn has engendered increasing levels of support among a range of sectors in Australian community, from health, education and legal workers to religious groups.
As part of their resistance to the cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment they receive, inmates continue, with a stubborn persistence, to support and care for one another. They defy the efforts to dehumanize by becoming one another’s families; they attempt to fill the aching void of loss and hurt with myriad expressive acts of solidarity and kindness. They work to form and sustain networks across entrenched divides.
In the recent moves to break up this nascent solidarity and community, we see a tactics of division and disruption all too familiar from other contexts. This is a tactics that must be clearly named and called out for what it is, as a communication we received recently from an inmate on Manus asks us to do:
After this separation they can take control of us like our movement or actions and up the pressure.
I don’t have any answer to this cruelty only we have to be patient that’s all.
I don’t know what you can do. Maybe you can write and publish it.